It's Wednesday, and that means it's time for yet another chapter of Making Sh*t Up: An Improvised Life. If you're new to this blog, you should probably back up and catch the last thirteen chapters. There's laughs, a few tears, some really horrible shit, and the time I unintentionally creeped-out a Golden Globe - winning actress. It's worth a read. And off we go!
Cancer, Leprosy, Honesty, Sympathy, and Skipping School
Every kid’s eighth grade year is awkward. That is a universal truth. But I will risk a little conceit and suggest that my eighth grade year was more awkward than most, compounded by the fact that, just a few weeks before school started that year, my father had blown his brains out. And, Conroe being the small, gossipy Texas town it was, every kid in school had heard about it. I became an instant celebrity in eighth grade, and for all the wrong reasons.
I have never had cancer. Or leprosy. But I feel I can relate, if only a tiny little bit, to what it must be like socially for victims of either disease. Not because my schoolmates treated me like something to be avoided at all costs; my father’s suicide didn’t cost me any friends. It’s just that nobody knew what to say to me. Eighth graders can pretty much handle the sarcasm, derision, contempt, scorn, and outright mockery that they get from other eighth graders. That comes with the territory. But sympathy? Pity? What use has an eighth grader for those things from his peers, who were as ill equipped to give them as I was to receive them?
So, there were a lot of awkward silences betwixt my classmates and me that year, which I started filling in with humor, which seemed a very great relief to my friends. If Larry was clowning around, then he must be okay, and so we need never speak of “the thing” again. The only honest response I got that year was from my buddy, Tony Vilardi. We never hung out after eighth grade, but I’ll never forget what he said to me. It must have been one or two weeks after the school year started, and I was feeling a lot of eyes on my back as I passed people in the halls. Kids hanging around my locker would scatter at my approach, for fear they’d be expected to say something. One morning, as we were hanging around outside waiting for the bell to ring for First Period, Tony looked at me square and said, “So, your dad. He just killed himself, huh?”
And then he said the most honest thing I heard from any of my friends that year:
“Shit. That sucks, man.”
I did not understand – and so could not have voiced in that moment – that what I felt at those words was a profound gratitude. Because Tony wasn’t offering sympathy; he was simply stating the truth. My dad was dead. And it sucked. He didn’t say he was sorry for my loss. And he didn’t – thank the universe – say, Bless your heart, which I never heard from any of my classmates, but which I heard from practically every adult I came into contact with for that year. Where I come from, Bless your heart often – but not always – is a good Texas Christian’s magnanimous way of saying, You poor fucking bastard. Better you than me.
I did get a goodly amount of sympathy from my teachers in eighth grade, which I exploited as much as my non-criminal mind would let me. Some let me slide on homework assignments that were incomplete, or that I didn’t turn in at all. How I mainly cashed in on their sympathy was being absent from school. A lot. This carried over into my freshman year of high school, where the one and only time I was called into the counselor’s office was to discuss my chronic absenteeism.
I wish I could remember the guy’s name. This was still at a time when – at least in small-town Texas in the early 80s – counselors were still the people whose primary occupation was to paddle the asses of wayward students. Actually counseling children was a few years away. But this particular counselor was what I would now call one of the “new breed,” though at the time he was probably considered a leftie-hippie-free-love radical at Conroe High School. First of all, he was younger. And by “younger,” I mean he wasn’t alive during the exodus out of Egypt, which most other counselors at the school obviously were. And secondly, he seemed genuinely concerned – about me.
He basically said that he’d added up my absences for the year-to-date, and that I had essentially already missed one whole six-weeks (a semester) of my freshman year. He asked me if there was anything going on with me – a health issue, problems at home with parents or siblings – that could possibly account for being gone from classes that much. Here, then, was an adult’s (albeit, a young one’s) honest attempt to “reach” me. I also realized at that moment that this guy had to be new in town, because he didn’t ask me about my Dad’s suicide, which meant he didn’t know. Which meant he didn’t go to the local Baptist church.
All this I see with the wisdom of hindsight. This poor guy was probably earnestly concerned about my situation, and was really trying to get me to open up. His earnestness had the opposite effect. I slammed shut tighter than a new prisoner’s sphincter on the first day of incarceration. And instead of answering his question, I responded with one of my own.
“Mr. Whatever The Hell His Name Was, do you have my report card in front of you?”
“Do you mind telling me what my grades are?”
“You’re making straight A’s.”
“And do you have my report cards from the beginning of the year until now?”
“Yes, I do.”
“And can you remind me what my grades have been all year?”
“You’ve been making straight A’s all year.”
“And can you tell me whether I make it to tenth grade is based on my attendance, or my grades?”
(Pause) “Your grades.”
“Then what’s the problem?”And that was the end of that. I never got called to the counselor’s office again for attendance issues. In fact, I never got called in for anything. I was not a trouble maker in the classic sense. But I did know just how far I could push people and circumstances, and (most of the time, at least) I knew when to back off. Besides, staying home all the time was getting boring, and the girls were all at school. And I made a shit-load of trouble with girls.
Next Week, Chapter Fifteen: Giving Myself A Hand
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